M. Butterfly’s Uighur Son

by Joshua Foust on 7/16/2009 · 1 comment


I’m sure most reasonably educated people are aware of Puccini’s masterwork Madame Butterfly. What’s so extraordinary about the work is it played itself out, in a way, in real life, when Shi Pei Pu, a male Peking opera singer, seduced French diplomat Bernard Boursicot in the 1960s. Their story, of Boursicot’s self-hatred and betrayal of his country and Shi Peipu’s epic genderbending, became a hit Broadway play, M. Butterfly. Naturally, an art-house movie, starring Jeremy Irons and John Lone, was almost unbearably awkward, but nevertheless compelling.

Here’s where the story gets fun. Part of Shi Peipu’s story is when he followed Boursicot back to his home in Paris after presenting him with a child that was the supposed result of their many encounters. In his obituary earlier this month in the New York Times, we learn that Shi’s fake Sino-French lovechild was, in fact, a Uighur:

Mr. Boursicot spent most of his life outside China and was romantically involved with men and women. On his rare visits to Shi Pei Pu, sexual contact was circumscribed. On one visit, Mr. Shi presented him with a 4-year-old boy, Shi Du Du, who Mr. Shi said was their son.

In 1982, Mr. Boursicot — then living openly with a male companion, Thierry Toulet — was able to arrange for Shi Pei Pu and Shi Du Du to live with him in Paris. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Boursicot and Shi Pei Pu were arrested. Mr. Shi first told the police he was a woman, but he admitted the truth to prison doctors, showing them how he hid his genitals.

Shi Du Du explained the mystery of where he came from in his statement to the police: he was from China’s Uighur minority, he said, and had been sold by his mother. “It was not that my mother did not love me,” he said. ”We were starving.”

Mr. Boursicot, hearing that Shi Pei Pu was a man and always had been, sliced his throat with a razor blade in prison.

There is little more to add to this little gem of wonder, aside from something mentioned at New Dominion, who kindly pointed out this story in the first place: “I wonder if Shi Dudu’s assertion – “It was not that my mother did not love me. We were starving.” – is the belief of a very small boy, maybe one of the many half-Russian children of Xinjiang, sold as much out of shame as out of need.”

Indeed. At this time, there remained a few White Russians left in China at least up until the 1950s, mostly hiding in the environs near Dihua, which was later renamed Urumqi in 1954. Several of those Russians helped CIA agents Douglas Mackiernan and Frank Bessac escape from the Chinese Revolution in Dihua to the border of Tibet in 1950. Mackiernan’s death there was vividly captured in the otherwise uneven book Into Tibet by Thomas Laird.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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{ 1 comment }

Oldschool Boy July 17, 2009 at 1:11 am

Back at the beginning of 1990s, a Kazakh-native doctorate exchange student from China told me about usual practice of many Kazakh families in Xinjiang to keep Uighur kids (usually girls) as long term servants and nannies. In China, Han people were allowed only one child, and national minorities – two. Children born in excess, mainly because of poor contraception, again usually girls in, in this case, Uighur families, were sold to other people to be kept as servants or nannies. These unfortunate human beings stayed with their host families, who provided them with shelter, food and clothes, and most of the time, looked at the host families’ babies, animals, and did some other petty household work. These children didn’t have any documents, couldn’t get education, and were destined for their entire life to work as some sort of medieval servants. I do not know if it still the same or changed.

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